About a year ago I sat down in a (very loud) coffee shop with film editor Michael Miller to talk about his career, film editing in general and the upcoming Oscars in specific. We hit it off with ease and enthusiasm, and the resulting interview translated the fun we had to such a degree that when Michael e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago and suggested that we use the time of year as an excuse to do it again, well, believe me, that was all the prompting I required. So this past Friday we landed at the same coffee shop (this time we sat outside—much more pleasant) and turned the tape recorder on again. I’ll let the original piece stand as a good source for any introductory material on Michael, but I will happily point out again that not only did he cut Raising Arizona and one of my favorite films, Miller’s Crossing, but he’s also done some great work on movies that don’t often get mentioned in the same sentences as “art” or even “good.” Perhaps imperfect but terrific pictures like Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids; Luis Llosa’s Anaconda (laugh if you must, but Jon Voight’s exeunt is as spectacularly funny as any on-screen death in the history of movies, and yes, I do remember Robert Shaw in Jaws); and Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst, a superb mix of political critique and empathetic projection, all bear Miller's signature as a film editor. Miller also served as principal editor on Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a movie that can knock you over with its fealty to the imaginations of the anxious, mocking, searching outsiders at its center, which are pitch-perfectly translated to the big screen from Daniel Clowes’ funny and disturbing smarty-pants graphic novel. Miller and I will present Ghost World this coming Thursday at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with a brief interview and Q&A conducted before the feature begins. Here, as we will there, we talk about Zwigoff’s methods, the upcoming Oscars, the annual American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards, which will be presented this coming Saturday, February 19, and much more.
DC: I’m looking at the nominees for the Eddies, and I noticed that they, like the Golden Globes, have a separate category for Feature Film (Dramatic) or Feature Film (Comedy or Musical). Do you like that division?
MM: It’s an artificial division on one hand, and on the other hand it enables them to have more nominees. I like it because in these times where the Academy has 10 Best Picture nominees I find myself thinking, you can’t have 10 best pictures that weren’t edited by 10 best editors. SO I like the idea that more people are honored, even if the division seems imposed and artificial.
DC: I prefer the drama/comedy division over the straight-up 10 Best Picture nominees because you get the benefit of being more inclusive, but the opportunity is also doubled that another movie besides a supposed front-runner will actually win something. When I look at the list of Eddie nominees for dramatic feature, to my memory—and I don’t have the Oscar list of editing nominees with me-- look like they match the Oscar nominations movie for movie. (In fact, it was a four-of-five match— Lee Smith’s Eddie nomination for Inception was replaced by Oscar’s nod at Jon Harris and 127 Hours-- DC) But I get really tickled when there’s room for a movie like Easy A or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to be recognized, and those movies probably would have been overlooked without that division. What do you think the A.C.E. membership looks for that they found in those movies?
MM: I can only say what I look for and what I talk about with fellow editors, and one of the things that always comes up is that it’s a little bit hard to know how to judge the editing of a film without knowing what they had to start with, without knowing the tales. A classic like Annie Hall began as a movie about the Alvy Singer character and his inability to experience pleasure and then evolved in the editing into Annie’s story and into a great romantic comedy. That’s an example of a film where the editing was great, but you might not be as aware of it just by watching the film. Something like Scott Pilgrim, you're drawn to Michael Cera’s character, in his way as flawed and unlikable as Alvy Singer was, and it’s fun and innovative. But as I’ve been hinting in my own blog, when you see something as a whole that you like best, it was the best edited. Because editing isn’t really about cutting out things. It’s about selecting the best material and being sensitive to the best material, being inspired by it. I remember a long, long time ago, I was just starting out and I edited this tiny little piece and the producer asked if it would be okay if they showed it to a more seasoned editor than myself, and I said okay. So who did they ask? Jerry Greenberg, a brilliant editor who edited The French Connection, Kramer vs. Kramer, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables. At that point I thought of Jerry as this testosterone-fueled editor-- The French Connection, right?
DC: A reasonable assumption, I guess.
MM: So we sat down together and he told me something that changed my entire view of editing. He said, “I can see from the way you put this scene together that you're very sensitive.” And it suddenly dawned on me that that was what editing was all about—sensitivity to a great reading, a great gesture, something that wasn't in all the other takes, even though the text was identical, the blocking was identical, the camera movement was identical. Somehow you’re able, along with the director, of course, to observe and choose something that is better or works better than everything else and make sure it winds up in the film. So I guess the A.C.E. editors look to nominate a film that displays that kind of sensitivity and most completely entertains us. I don’t think we’ll ever nominate the kind of film that has you constantly looking at your watch. But although these types of films often win, the best-edited films are often not the flashiest. I don’t think you can watch the chariot race in Ben-Hur and not feel that that isn’t a movie that deserved a nomination, and in fact it did win an Academy Award for film editor Ralph Winters. It's hard to watch the elevated train-foot chase in The French Connection and not say, that’s great editing. But you’re not looking for the flash.
DC: As much as I can see the work that goes into something like Inception, I still have issues with it in terms of its clarity as a piece of storytelling and how hard it seems to be working, the sweat on its brow, so to speak. But look at Chris Lebenzon, who has an Eddie nomination for Alice in Wonderland. It’s a wonderfully paced, almost classically mounted movie, despite its cutting-edge technology. And it represents the work of a man who is frequently associated with Tony Scott, whose movies usually feature the kind of overly busy editing to which I have a great resistance. Yet it’s interesting to me to draw a line between Alice and another film Lebenzon edited this year, Scott’s Unstoppable, which is brilliant in the manner that Greenberg’s work on The French Connection was. Unstoppable works hard, Alice less so, yet they’re both terrific examples of good, limber, inspired film editing.
MM: Editors have always seemed to me to be like great studio musicians. You put Slash on a Guns ‘n’ Roses record and it’s Guns ‘n’ Roses, and it’s great. Put Slash on a Michael Jackson record and it’s a Michael Jackson record; it might be equally great, but it’s also a different creature. That’s how Chris Lebenzon can work so well with directors as tonally and emotionally different as Tim Burton and Tony Scott. I loved Unstoppable too—there was a smile on my face from beginning to end. A great studio musician is often playing off the charts, and the charts for Unstoppable, as it were, are pretty amazing. You have those sudden, rapid camera movements right before a cut—
DC: But in that movie they never seem like movement for the sake of movement. I mean, the subject of the movie is relentless forward motion. What bothered me about his remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 is that I felt Scott in there stirring the pot constantly. It’s essentially a sedentary movie—Washington behind the mic, Travolta on a stopped train-- and Scott was in there working hard to distract us from that fact. Yet somehow in the original film it’s never an issue.
MM: Yeah, I think you're right. And that may be why he made another train movie. It reminds me of another movie I saw again recently, The Firm, which was directed by Sydney Pollack. When the film came out I was working on Medicine Man with John McTiernan, and he said something really fascinating about The Firm. He said, “I couldn’t have made that film, because I could never figure out how to make a dynamic film about wire transfers and Xeroxes.” In a way, that was Tony Scott’s problem with Pelham.
DC: And that, in a strange way, brings me to Ghost World. The movie has a certain stillness amid the occasional cacophony which distinguishes it from a typical teen comedy. Did you talk with Terry Zwigoff specifically about pacing on that movie, in terms of trying to recreate or somehow represent the experience of reading Daniel Clowes’ deadpan panels to a moving picture format? Those panels on the page are very unfussy and kind of matter-of-fact, and I think the movie shares that feeling.
MM: I agree. And I wish I could say yes, but the answer is actually no. I was not there during principal photography; I came on the picture during post-production. And it was a strange experience. I often say something about this movie that seems falsely humble but it’s not at all. I think my major contribution to Ghost World was convincing United Artists executives that the film was really good. (Laughs)
DC: Congratulations! Work well done!
MM: But it’s true; I think they were a little worried about it. In those days, and to this day, the studios rely very heavily on market research preview screenings, and the fact is, Ghost World is not the kind of film that’s going to strike 90% of the viewers as “very good” or “excellent.” It’s meant to unnerve you. It’s mean to meddle with you. To my mind, “good” is not an undesirable preview rating, but it’s not the one that’s going to count toward good preview numbers, and the preview numbers were low on Ghost World, understandably. So it was a matter of someone the studio execs trusted coming in and saying, “No, it’s really good. It’s exactly what it wants to be.” And then from there we also did certain things not to make the central characters more palatable, but to make the audience identify with them a little more.
DC: Ghost World is a very assured piece of work and, to use that word again, sensitive in unexpected ways. And in terms of drawing an audience into the realm of flawed and sometimes unlikable characters, it has a lot in common with something like Scott Pilgrim, though the two movies approach the visual element from different angles. It’s not visually flashy and clever, but in its own way it is quite eloquent visually in the way it steps back and creates a tiny bit of distance between the audience and the way the characters are presented on screen, in the way that one is distanced from stylized characters in a graphic novel, all without constant visual reminders of the origins of the material.
MM: That’s my favorite kind of film—a film with a flawed protagonist who the audience can connect to anyway, despite the director or the screenwriter needing to create that kind of distance. And to get back to your original thought, I do love being involved in a film at the earliest stages, but I wasn’t during Ghost World.
DC: Let’s talk about some of the other nominations, both Oscars and Eddies. What struck you about the batch of documentaries that are being honored this year?
MM: I happen to be on the documentary committee (for the Eddies), and the documentaries are not chosen by the membership. I think the assumption is there’d be too much policing to make sure all the members watch all the documentaries. It’s pretty reasonable to assume they’ve watched all of the features because screeners go out pretty regularly. But I was actually surprised at the list of Eddie nominees in the documentary category, particularly about what wasn’t nominated. And I certainly don’t know what has won—we fill out our ballots, fold ‘em up and don’t say anything, so that’ll be a surprise that we’ll learn on Saturday night. But I was very surprised at how well Waiting for Superman played in a room full of people who pay for their medical bills and dental bills and have a shot at living a secure life after retirement because of the union that they all belong to. I was appalled by that film and appalled that it was even considered by the A.C.E. I’m proud of the Academy for rejecting it and not recognizing it.
DC: When the film first came out, it seemed destined for coronation right alongside An Inconvenient Truth.
MM: Yeah, and it made me want to go back and look at An Inconvenient Truth and examine what it was that I really saw there. I was shocked by how viciously and inaccurately anti-union the movie was. A friend of mine, a great music editor named David Bondelevitch, whose parents were both teachers, e-mailed me this morning with a link to an article in The Washington Post about the things Waiting for Superman got wrong. One of the things the article points out is a little bit about the history of teachers unions. Before teachers unions men and women did not get equal pay. Women got very low pay relative to male teachers. But the other thing—and this should be kind of obvious to everyone, but I guess it isn’t—is that the reason teachers unions fought for tenure is so that the school superintendent or the principal couldn’t fire you because his cousin just graduated with a degree in education or because you campaign for a candidate they don’t like outside of school, or because—worst-case scenario—you teach evolution instead of creationism. As Waiting for Superman would have it, tenure is intended to ensure that lazy haters of children can hold onto their jobs and make sure that no one gets a decent education. So I’m really hoping that film doesn’t win. But I gotta tell you, what I found manipulative I’m sure some people would call “effective.”
DC: What about the other nominees?
MM: I think Inside Job is a very important film. I think all three films fulfill documentary traditions of one kind or another in their own way. The documentary filmmaker who came to mind when I was watching Inside Job was Fredrick Wiseman. And I thought specifically of High School. Wiseman allows people to be themselves, speak their minds, imagine that they might be speaking to a sympathetic, or at least an objective audience, and everything is just fine. He showed the faculty of Northeast High School in Pennsylvania his final cut of the film and they were very happy with it. Then they read about it, a review in Time magazine, and suddenly decided that Wiseman had brutalized them.
DC: And the film hadn’t been changed in any way.
MM: Exactly. And what I love about Inside Job is that these Columbia and Harvard faculty members and P.R. guys speak in such a condescending fashion, as if what they’re saying is okay, the way it is, and they just hang themselves!
DC: It’s not about how clever Wiseman, or Ferguson (director of Inside Job), is. The director is never imposed into the situation.
MM: No, for the most part he’s just letting people speak for themselves. And certainly he wasn’t even there during (Lloyd) Blankfein’s testimony where he also hangs himself. Let's be honest-- there’s manipulation in all documentary filmmaking. There was an Arthur Schlesinger review of a TV documentary from the 1960s which was excerpted in a collection of essays called The Documentary Tradition. Schlesinger didn’t like the documentary he was reviewing, and in the analysis of it he described the difference between a documentary film and a fiction film as being that the latter hires actors and pays them, but they’re both fabrication. They both entail editing and selection which necessarily reflects a point of view. And that’s true. But I think one can engage in the selection process without being devious or bullying in the manipulation of images and words. That’s the difference between Waiting for Superman and Inside Job. Inside Job was anything but devious—What is the fair-and-balanced other side of that story? (Laughs)
DC: Who will make the great counterbalancing Goldman-Sachs picture?
MM: And then there’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is a delightful, delightful film. It’s so much fun. And it’s sort of in a documentary tradition. It’s a kind of guerrilla representation of its subject and straightforward to a point—or is it? (Laughs) I couldn’t help thinking of F for Fake.
DC: There’s a whole level that movie works on that doesn’t begin to creep in until about halfway through. You’re caught up in thinking about all this footage this poor bastard has. What can he possibly do with it? And then there’s the element of how the movie was basically hijacked from him and became about him. All this preoccupies you from the start, and then comes the dawning suspicion that there may be some other force at work here…
MM: That’s one of the things I love about it. Like a great piece of music or a great painting, suddenly days later something occurs to you about the film. Like this morning, I was listening to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” a song I must have heard a thousand times in my life. But this morning, for some reason, listening to the drum part in the song I realized, “Hey, this drummer is pretty good!” Similarly with Exit Through the Gift Shop, you watch and watch and watch, and suddenly you realize, “Oh, my goodness, the L.A. art scene is insane!” Or, “Wait a minute. He couldn’t have had all those unlabeled tapes! They’d still be sorting them out!” It’s unsettling, but in a fascinating way.
DC: It’s interesting, too, as a piece of art criticism, and certainly as a critique of accepted standards in the art world. It’d make a great double feature with that John Waters movie Pecker, which digs into some of the same turf.
MM: You look at Warhol’s Brillo boxes and you have to wonder, okay, well, he did use oil paints and the tools that were available to a pop artist in the 1960s. How different is that, really, from Photoshopping and Xeroxing a Warhol itself? The movie does raise very interesting questions about the nature of contemporary pop art. And the other thing is, we who are tolerant or more than tolerant of tagging may not think about it, but the film makes you question or at least consider the negative response toward that practice too.
DC: Can it function as art, or is it just glorified vandalism?
MM: Whatever it is, it’s subversive, and it’s fun to see all that being examined in a movie like that.
DC: And to put it in a context where you have to step back and see it as something other than the environment you’re in every day, where you might see a Shepard Fairey street poster every day as you drive to work and it might not register as anything but a different kind of graffiti. Exit Through the Gift Shop forces you to look at this stuff in a way that might not come naturally. It breaks down your resistance through a sustained act of cheerful criticism.
MM: Yes, and you can watch it over and over again and see something new each time.
DC: What are the Oscar voters, that great, mysterious “they,” looking for when they put their vote in for best editing, as opposed to the editors who come up with the nominations to begin with?
MM: In a way, I think they’re looking for the same thing. It’s always remarkable to me the degree to which even people in the industry don’t really understand editing. But I’ll bet anything that a cinematographer might say the same thing, a member of the music branch might say the same thing. I started out as a set P.A. I loved being on the set, and I’m on the set a lot. So I try to understand what cinematographers and designers are doing. But I’ll give you an example of how the Academy as a whole doesn’t know specific things about branches. A wonderful costume designer by the name of Jenny Beavan is nominated for an Oscar for The King’s Speech. The first thing you notice when you’re watching The King’s Speech is that it was financed by the British Lottery, which no longer exists. So you say to yourself, “Whoa, they didn’t have any money to make this film.” Jenny is brilliant. I worked with her on Swing Kids, and she was in the same sort of situation on that film. She got a nomination for The King’s Speech that amounts to, in a way, knowing where the best costume rental houses were, because she didn’t have the resources to design all of the costumes used in the film. Designing period costumes and making them from scratch takes a lot of time and money. But what I as a viewer know, and what all Academy members know is, “Wow, that stuff looked good. I really believed they were in the period. What they were wearing was very expressive of character.” We’re affected by that emotionally, the clothing the characters wear when Logue and Bertie meet for the first time, for example, and so Jenny gets her nomination. The same goes with editing.
DC: Maybe you can say that the picture that is “the most edited” or “has the most editing” might be the one that attracts the nomination.
MM: Yes, and I would bet there’s very little divergence with voters between their editing and their best picture choices. It isn’t gonna be what was flashiest. It’s going to be, what held up for me? What movie was I engaged by from beginning to end? What movie would I see again five minutes after the lights come up?
(Michael Miller will participate in a Q&A before the screening of Ghost World this Thursday, February 17, at the New Beverly Cinema. Advance tickets for the performance are available through Brown Paper Tickets. For show times and other pertinent information, please visit the Web site of the New Beverly Cinema.)